Eli Manning stood broken at his locker on Tuesday afternoon in East Rutherford, not long before the sun went down across the highway from where Manning had worked daily the past 14 years to become the greatest quarterback in Giants history.
Manning was choking back emotion as reporters circled him before the questions even hit. But when the necessary and uncomfortable inquiries did come, seeking clarity on why Ben McAdoo was turning to Geno Smith as the Giants’ new starting quarterback, it became harder for the famously impenetrable Eli to hide his feelings.
His eyes welled up with tears and emotion. He was in pain. He could not say if he ever would play a game for the Giants again. He probably won’t.
“It’s hard,” Manning said. “A hard day to handle this. But I’ll hang in there. And figure it out.”
Manning, 36, seemingly was going to have to surrender snaps at some point to rookie Davis Webb, given the Giants’ season had tumbled into a 2-9 oblivion and they would need to see Webb in games to prepare for next spring’s draft.
But it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
Not with Jason Pierre-Paul, an eighth-year veteran who should know better, yucking it up with teammates not 10 feet away from Manning’s locker as the two-time Super Bowl winning QB basically eulogized his own Giants career, which is essentially over. And with no one telling JPP to show a little respect.
Not with Bobby Hart, a backup lineman who declared himself the best right tackle in the league in September, acting more jovially than he has in almost three months. Not with teammates such as these showing no class, revealing just how lost this locker room has become.
Not with Manning, who owns two Super Bowl rings, receiving his pink slip from McAdoo, a relative nobody whose disastrous coaching job helped caused Tuesday’s travesty.
Eli Manning was forced to endure five of the worst minutes of his career on Tuesday.
Not with McAdoo offensively suggesting that Manning continue starting to keep his 210-game streak alive, knowing full well that on Sunday in Oakland, no matter what he would give way to Smith in the second half. Manning called out his coach for that ridiculous suggestion, the latest example of McAdoo having no feel for his job.
“I just didn’t think that you start knowing that you’re going to come out of a game to keep a streak alive maybe,” Manning said. “That’s not what it’s about … That’s not fair. That’s not fair to me, that’s not fair to Geno, that’s not how you play.”
Instead, Manning endured five of the worst minutes of his career and then stepped aside, and in walked Smith for his moment under the lights, and then finally in walked Webb, symbolically doing his interview in front of the lockers “Manning 10” and “Webb 5,” side-by-side, but with such a different meaning than they had on Monday.
McAdoo weeks ago should have started dressing Webb for games, and when the scores got out of hand, he could have turned those lost second-halves and fourth quarters into tryouts for the rookie third-round pick. Plenty of the Giants’ games have gotten out of hand. The fan base would have understood pulling Manning from disaster losses to take a look at the future, and a transition would have felt more natural and studied in a lost season.
But no. McAdoo, Jerry Reese and John Mara chose the route of blindsiding Manning. At least they let him pass his brother, Peyton (208), for second all-time in consecutive starts behind Brett Favre (297) before pulling the plug. Still, what seemed to make Tuesday more difficult on Manning is that he was as stunned as any of his loyal fans.
He never saw it coming.
“No. I mean, I didn’t know,” Manning said. “I spoke with Jerry Reese a little bit, and Mr. Mara, he hadn’t been in today, but he knows what’s going on and I’ll try to speak with him tomorrow some time.”
The hard truth, of course, is that Manning was playing poorly this season and making mistakes that were costing the team in some big spots, so he was showing signs of slowing down. The gut punch, though, is that there is an unmistakable feeling that everyone associated with the Giants has let Manning down with how this is ending.
Eli Manning never saw this coming.
And while JPP was busy yucking it up with his buddies and Damon Harrison was busy feuding on Twitter with an irate Carl Banks, it was an undrafted rookie, right tackle Chad Wheeler, who best summed up the respect Manning deserves and the difficulty of watching the team’s performance impact Manning’s storied career.
“To play with him? It was a tremendous honor, first off,” Wheeler, 23, coming off his first two career NFL starts protecting Manning, told the Daily News Tuesday. “I’m very thankful to everybody that had a hand in the opportunity to allow me to play the game with him. It was surreal.
“I wish I gave him a better second game like the first one,” Wheeler said, growing a bit emotional himself. “I kinda gave up a couple sacks the second one. Yeah, it was just a dream come true: watching him play as a kid, making some of the craziest throws I’ve seen anyone make. How competitive he is, how great of a quarterback he is. Sometimes I have to just slow down and think about it because the feeling is, wow. It’s unreal.”
Smith was gracious, saying of Manning: “I told him I support him. I told him I have a ton of respect for him.”
Webb was first-class, saying he told Manning: “You’re the best teammate I’ve had in my life and the best quarterback I’ve ever seen in my life.” If Webb isn’t the Giants’ future franchise quarterback, he certainly talks and acts like it.
But the unspoken, uncomfortable reality is that Manning’s Giants career has to be over. He was scheduled to cost $ 22.2 million against the team’s cap in 2018 and $ 23.2 million in 2019, and what is Manning going to do, tuck his tail between his legs and return and then take a paycut, to boot? No way, no how.
Tom Coughlin weighed in Tuesday night on WJXL-AM in Jacksonville: “I was very upset … when I heard that.” Kurt Warner joined Coughlin and Banks in a growing list of those who were mortified by the move: “Shame on the Giants.”
Then the Daily News ran a poll, asking Giants fans, “After watching Ben McAdoo bench Eli Manning and bring him to near-tears, will you attend the Giants’ remaining 2017 home games?” Out of 1,623 votes in the two-hour poll, 93% of the fans voted no.
That should tell you Manning might look like the scapegoat now. But come January, McAdoo and Reese are next.